Phillies

Why the NLCS-bound Braves will be a problem for years to come

Phillies

When the Atlanta Braves were in desperate need of a starting pitcher in late August, they called up 22-year-old righthander Ian Anderson, the third overall pick in the 2016 draft. Anderson has been brilliant since that call-up, putting up a 1.95 ERA over six regular-season starts with a 1.08 WHIP and 41 strikeouts in 32.1 innings. He's been even better in his first two postseason starts, dominating to the tune of 17 strikeouts and three walks in 11.2 scoreless innings.

When the Phillies were in desperate need of a starting pitcher in September, they turned to Vince Velasquez, who has proven to be a mediocre starter in five seasons in Philadelphia.

Velasquez wasn't terrible in September. He had a 4.74 ERA in four starts to end the season. But he wasn't Ian Anderson, either. That highlights the gap in talent (particularly young talent) between the two franchises.  

Just look at the Braves' lineup. It starts with 22-year-old phenom Ronald Acuña, Jr., who scored 46 runs in 46 games this season and led the NL in fewest at-bats per HR (11.4). He's the most dynamic power-speed combination in the sport and what he's done at his age is historic. He's one of just 17 players in MLB history to hit 80+ home runs before turning 23 years old. Acuña is signed through 2026 to the one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball (8 years, $100 million).

Second baseman Ozzie Albies had a bit of a down year this season, hitting .271/.306/.466 in only 29 games. But he's still just 23 years old and is coming off a 2019 season when he led the NL with 189 hits, scored 100 runs and hit 24 home runs. Albies is under contract through 2025, thanks to a 7-year, $35 million deal he signed back in 2019. 

 

The Braves have gotten excellent production thus far for that relatively low cost. The Phillies tried a similar strategy with Scott Kingery (6 years, $24 million) that has yet to pay dividends.

Albies' double-play partner, 26-year-old Dansby Swanson, quietly had a breakout season at shortstop, hitting .274/.345/.464 with 10 home runs. The 2015 No. 1 overall pick is now in his prime and won't be a free agent until 2023.

The Braves also have two of MLBPipeline.com's top-25 overall prospects (No. 10 Cristian Pache and No. 22 Drew Waters) waiting in the wings to take over for Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis in the outfield. Prospects don't always pan out, of course, but the young talent is in place.

On the pitching side of things, the Braves have a pair of potential aces in Anderson and 26-year-old lefty Max Fried, who made a massive leap to become one of the best starters in the NL this season. They will hope for a similar leap from 25-year-old Kyle Wright, the 5th overall pick in the 2017 draft, who has struggled to a 6.22 ERA early in his career. Atlanta also hopes to have 23-year-old righty Mike Soroka back early next season. The runner-up for last season's NL Rookie of the Year Award, Soroka tore his right Achilles tendon back in August.     

Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopolous has done an excellent job of building a veteran bullpen to complement his young rotation. The Braves' bullpen logged the second-most innings in baseball and its 3.50 ERA was fourth-best. 

Rather than sign veterans to long-term contracts, Anthopolous has opted to sign veterans to high-dollar, one-year deals. Josh Donaldson got $23 million from the Braves last season and rewarded them by hitting 37 home runs. Anthopolous was more than happy to let the Twins pay Donaldson in free agency, pivoting to a one-year, $18 million deal for Marcell Ozuna. Once again, the Braves got incredible production, as Ozuna led the NL in home runs, runs batted in and total bases. As with Donaldson, you can expect Atlanta to allow another team the honor of signing Ozuna to a long-term deal.

That brings us to Freddie Freeman, who will test the Braves' reluctance to hand out massive, long-term contracts. Freeman already is the recipient of the richest contract in franchise history, an 8-year, $135 million deal which ends after next season. The likely frontrunner for NL MVP honors this season, Freeman will be 32 years old when his contract runs out. It will be fascinating to see if the Braves are willing to pay the $200 million it might take to keep Freeman in Atlanta for the rest of his career.

Regardless of Freeman's future with the team, the Braves are set up to be a playoff fixture for several years to come and have already won the last three division titles. There are no guarantees in baseball, but the next Phillies general manager will inherit a landscape where the road to winning the NL East goes through Atlanta.